Opinion // John Diaz

Cheating: that dark American pastime

It should not surprise Americans that a cheating scandal tainted a World Series, the premier event of our national pastime. The only shock is that the Houston Astros got caught and disciplined. In truth, cheating, not baseball or football, is our enduring national pastime.

It’s been going on in spectacular fashion since before the founding of the republic — or did you miss your history lesson about that deal to swindle Native Americans out of Manhattan for the equivalent of $24? — and it’s not limited to sports. Remember, African Americans were cheated out of full human status in the Constitution, counted as merely three-fifths of a person.

Nothing is sacred, not even those television quiz shows in the black-and-white innocence of the 1950s. Wherever there is competition, the dark side of American ingenuity has found ways to cut corners to go beyond the gray areas of fair play to gain an advantage.

We’ve seen it in big ways, in high finance and politics, to small ways, in friendly golf games and exaggerated tax deductions on Goodwill donations or church offering plates. And, yes, I’ve seen it in my profession, where the temptations of fabrication or plagiarism have proved career ending — and properly so. Janet Cooke of the Washington Post forfeited a Pulitzer Prize and Jayson Blair of the New York Times sacrificed a promising career for breaching those admonitions.

The rationalizations for cheating seem to come down to these premises: The end justifies the means; or, everyone else is doing it. And, most recklessly, I won’t get caught.

But people do get caught, where the rest of the world ask, “What were they thinking?!”

The Astros no doubt thought they were outsmarting the opposition in 2017 when they used the video technology at their home ballpark to decipher a catcher’s sign on which pitch was coming, then bang on a trash can to alert their batters. It’s hard to conceive of a better competitive advantage in baseball — and it probably explains why they were able to hammer three erstwhile hot pitchers of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

Major League Baseball last week came down hard on the scam — suspending the Astros’ manager and general manager, each of whom was subsequently fired by the team — but stopped short of the ultimate penalty. The championship trophy remains in Houston.

It’s a huge and dispiriting scandal, but only the second worst in baseball history. That distinction belongs to the 1919 Chicago White Sox, forever known as the Black Sox, eight of whom allegedly were lured by a $100,000 bribe to throw the series to the eventual champions, the Cincinnati Reds.

At least the Astros were cheating to win.

So were other athletes in infamous cases: Lance Armstrong, the all-time cyclist banished from the sport in a blood-doping scandal; Barry Bonds, the Giants’ home run king whose connection with performance-enhancing drugs has kept him out of the Hall of Fame; Marion Jones, the star of the 2000 Olympics who was stripped of her five medals after admitting to steroid use; and Rosie Ruiz, who sneaked onto the course with a mile left to claim victory in the 1980 Boston Marathon.

The prospect of a public shaming has never proved quite enough to deter cheaters when the stakes are high in American society.

Just ask Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman or the other lesser-known but equally well-heeled parents who used deceptive means to get their children into elite colleges. Just ask Wells Fargo about its opening of bogus accounts, Bernie Madoff about his investment Ponzi scheme or the heretofore respected financial firms whose issuance of high-risk loans put this nation’s economy at risk of collapse in 2008. Just ask the New England Patriots why they need to keep cheating — from deflating footballs to spying on opponents — to maintain their dynasty.

In a phrase, they cheat because they think they can.

That brings us to politics where, as in baseball, a certain level of cheating is considered just part of the game. In baseball, a spitball, a corked bat or old-school sign-stealing by a base runner is regarded as fine if you can get away with it. In politics, a campaign-finance-law violation — discovered and fined after the election — is regarded as the cost of doing business. Distortion of an opponent’s record? Winning means never having to say you’re sorry.

But there are boundaries, and invitation to foreign donations or interference is one of them. The latter is central in the impeachment of President Trump. It’s not just cheating; it’s a violation of law.

Cheating was also an issue in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. He was accused of having sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and then lying about it under oath. Wrong? Yes and yes. Unfortunately, there is not enough space in this newspaper, let alone any textbook, to catalog all the politicians, entertainers, sports stars and other who have cheated or lied on that count.

A certain tolerance of cheating is ingrained in American culture. We tend to glamorize big-time law evaders such as Al Capone, even though he never paid his fair share of taxes and ended up in prison for it. Polls show a majority of Americans regard Trump as dishonest, yet his support remains steady, even as he has been the first president since Watergate to refuse to release his taxes, the ultimate act of transparency.

Ah, yes, taxes. We may not trust our government leaders to play it straight, but those of us who file aggressively can be grateful the skepticism is not reciprocated. Internal Revenue Services audits have declined for eight straight years to where just 0.45% of personal income tax returns are audited.

It’s no wonder cheating is a national pastime. Our government acknowledges it, even incentivizes it.

Just don’t get caught. It can be humiliating, and costly.

John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JohnDiazChron

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